August 30, 2020

U.S. Open 2020: Predicting the Final Four

The tennis season is always chock full of surprises, but it's safe to say no one could have predicted things would turn out the way they have this year. And now, nearly seven months since the first Grand Slam of 2020, and with precious little play since, we're finally on the verge of the second one, and weirdly it's the U.S. Open. 

Of course, it's a wildly different U.S. Open than we've seen in years past. Aside from the lack of fans and apparently virtual crowd noise, the towels strewn against the backboards, the temperature checks and COVID tests, there's of course the obviously depleted draws, with just seven of the top ten ranked men and four of the top women in action this fortnight -- and neither of the defending champions. The withdrawals, which came fast and furious over the last few weeks, have allowed players like Rebecca Peterson and Jan-Lennard Struff earn their first seedings at a Major. And they've created plenty of opportunity for everyone else to make a mark for themselves.

That's not to say the trophies are entirely up for grabs -- there is plenty of big name talent in the mix, including a handful of Grand Slam winners (ten* on the women's side, I was surprised to discover!) and runners-up that will be loathe to step aside quietly. And while we may not have had the full slate of lead up tournaments, we still have some evidence to suggest who might be able to pull off an upset or two.

And with all that in mind, I present to you my (likely-to-be-entirely-confounded) picks for who will make the final four in the men's and women's draws, and my (needs-to-be-dusted-off) Confidence Meter for those calls. And since it's been so long, it's worth a reminder what the ratings mean:

I mean, we've seen weirder things this year... →
← As sure as we can be these days

So, without further ado, let's get to it!



First Quarter

Oddly, this might be the weakest section of ladies' field this year. 

Karolina Pliskova is ranked third and seeded first in New York, the site of her only Grand Slam final to date. But that run in 2016 seems like a long time ago, and despite her consistency on the rest of the tour, she continues to struggle on the biggest stage. Her first match back from the lockdown did little to inspire -- she dropped her opening round in "Cincinnati" to Veronika Kudermetova in straight sets. And she faces a tough test at the Open -- a probable second round against Caroline Garcia, Lexington champ Jennifer Brady in the third. It's entirely possible she doesn't get back to the round of 16 like she did last year.

Petra Martic is the other top seed in this quarter, but we haven't seen the Croatian #1 since the clay court comeback events of early August. While she did decently in Palermo, she never faced a real threat there and so could be caught off guard now. She does have a slightly more forgiving early road than Pliskova, but should be tested if she meets Kristina Mladenovic in the third round. 

A little big of a wildcard, though, is three-time Major winner Angelique Kerber who lost here in the first round last year to Mladenovic. We haven't seen her since the Australian Open, and at #23 in the world she's far from her career highs, but that could work to her advantage. She kicks off against a tricky Ajla Tomljanovic, and possibly a higher-ranked Alison Riske a few matches later. But I like her chances to get at least a few rounds in.

All that said, I'm putting my money on Brady, who may have lost early at the Western & Southern, but was literally unstoppable at the Top Seed Open. This is the first time she's seeded at a Major, and given her past performances, it's no wonder why -- she's only won more than one match twice in her career. But with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and Ashleigh Barty already this year, she seems primed to change that. And as stated above, the luck of the draw may have worked to her favor. 

My Semifinalist Pick:Jennifer Brady
Confidence Meter:She's been the strongest one in a wide-open section

Second Quarter

This section seems to have a little more firepower in it, although maybe not from where you'd expect. 

Australian Open titleist Sofia is the on-paper headliner, but she's struggled in the months since that career-making win. She was one-for-two at Fed Cup, lost a couple early rounds in the late winter, regrouped to take the trophy in Lyon...and then lost pretty handily to Alizé Cornet in Cincy in her first match after the quarantine. And she's got a tough road from the get-go -- a first round against veteran Yanina Wickmayer, a second versus either one-time runner-up Vera Zvonareva or rising star Leylah Fernandez.

On the other side of the quarter is fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka. She's been a little more busy this summer, entered in both Lexington and the Western & Southern, but she's gotten upset both times, by Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula respectively. She'll begin against feisty Oceane Dodin and will likely then face two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka, the unlikeliest of champions in Cincinnati this year, in round two. She actually got the better of the Belarusian in their opener here in 2019, but there could be a reversal should they meet again.

But there are plenty of other threats out there too. Unseeded Venus Williams opens against Karolina Muchova while wildcard Kim Cljisters, who won her third title here in 2010 before retiring for a second time, faces Shenzhen champ Ekaterina Alexandrova off the top. And let's not forget some of the lower seeds -- both Johanna Konta and Elise Mertens had semifinal runs in Cincy, the latter also reaching the final in Prague. Either one could stand out in this already-packed crowd.

And then there's Ons Jabeur, a quarterfinalist in Melbourne with wins over Konta, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady and Caroline Wozniacki this year. And as the first player from Tunisia to make any mark on tour, her accomplishments exceed even what she's done on court. She's slated to meet Kenin in the third round, and though she has a 1-4 record against the world #4, she might actually be able to get the upper hand this time.

My Semifinalist Pick:Johanna Konta
Confidence Meter:This is the one where anything can happen

Third Quarter 

Whoever emerges out of that section gets to face the winner of this one for a spot in the finals, so you can be sure she'll be paying close attention. And there's a lot to watch, too.

Serena Williams, still going after that record-tying 24th Major title, one that she's failed to get in her last eight attempts, has the third seed and a first round against last year's Cinderella (and TikTok queen) Kristie Ahn. While Williams' first several matches should be easy wins for her, we've seen her struggle since the reopening -- losing to Maria Sakkari last week after falling to then-#116 Shelby Rogers in Lexington at the start of the month. She's certainly the favorite, but everyone in the field needs to know she's not an immovable force.

Sakkari is in this section too, hopefully well recovered from her stunning win in "Cincy." While she could set up a rematch in the fourth round, something tells me that if both she and Serena make it that far, the American won't let her get by a second time. 

In the other half of this quarter, things could get interesting. Unseeded Jil Teichmann is slated for a second round against Madison Keys, who we haven't seen since she lost to Sakkari in Melbourne. If the Lexington finalist, who made it through qualies at the Western & Southern and beat Danielle Collins in that first round, can pick up where she left off, there could be some upsets in the making.

And then there's Aussie finalist and two-time Major champion Garbiñe Muguruza who pulled out of Cincy because of ankle pain. After a more-than-disappointing 2019 season, she was playing back at her true ability before the stoppage, reaching at least the quarters of every event she played this year. Her first big test should come against Donna Vekic in the third round -- or, frankly, Krystina Pliskova, who's had some nice results this summer and could upset the 18th seed -- but if her ankle holds up, I wouldn't be surprised to see her making the final four.

My Semifinalist Pick:Garbiñe Muguruza
Confidence Meter:It'll come down to her and Serena, I think

Fourth Quarter

This last quarter of the ladies' draw has some of the strongest under-the-radar players in the field all battling it out for a chance at the title.

Let's start with Anett Kontaveit, who made a solid run to the quarters in Australia, beating sixth seed Belinda Bencic in the third round, and then reached the final in Palermo at the start of the month.  She was on point in Cincy too, reaching the quarters and taking the first set off Naomi Osaka before ultimately ending her campaign. While Danielle Collins could be a test in the first round, it feels like the Estonian should make good on, and possibly surpass, the expectations of her 14th seeding.

And then there's Elena Rybakina, by far the stand-out of the season pre-lockdown. She played six tournaments back-to-back, and reached the finals of four of them, even picking up a title in Hobart. Post-lockdown, she lost a tight first round to Ekaterina Alexandrova but could come out swinging when she re-takes the court. A potential second round against Serena-vanquisher Shelby Rogers and a fourth against Petra Kvitova could be manageable.

But we can't count out Jessica Pegula, runner-up in Auckland, where she allowed Williams to break her nearly three-year title draught, and a quarterfinalist at the Western & Southern. She might just give Kvitova a run for the money if they both reach the third round. 

They're not all low profile names, of course. Coco Gauff is still unseeded but certainly a big attraction. She continued her stellar Slam showings with a fourth round appearance in Melbourne, repeating her Wimbledon win over Venus Williams and avenging her U.S. Open loss to Osaka. She made the semis too in Lexington and now sits at a career-high rank of #50 in the world. She kicks off against Anastasia Sevastova and could meet Osaka yet again in the third round.

Speaking of Osaka, she'll have to recover quick from the hamstring injury that forced her out of the Cincy final, but hopes are high that she'll be able to do it. While she got off to a sort of slow start to the year -- she's at her lowest rank in just about two years, notably when she won her first U.S. Open -- but she's developed so much as a player and person since, and her performance this past week might prove she's ready to make another run this time around.

My Semifinalist Pick:Naomi Osaka
Confidence Meter:It feels like experience will win out here


First Quarter

World #1 Novak Djokovic has made a ton of headlines this summer, and not all of them good. But he just picked up his 80th career title in Cincy-cum-New York and, still undefeated this year, is far and away the most experienced/qualified player in the field -- the only other man with a Major title to his name is Marin Cilic, and that win seems a long, long time ago. And if there's anyone who can put aside the distractions and focus on the task at hand -- going for his 18th Major title -- it's this guy. But he had some scares at the Western & Southern -- from a neck injury that caused him to pull out of doubles to nearly squandering a third set lead against Roberto Bautista Agut in their three-hour semi and dropping a 1-6 set to Milos Raonic in the final -- so there are opportunities.  

On paper, the other favorites include David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov, though neither of them have done much since the ATP Cup at the start of the year. The former has a tough first round against big-serving Reilly Opelka, who narrowly missed getting a seed at this event. The third ranked American claimed a title in Delray Beach just before the lockdown and this week in Cincy picked off Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini before retiring in the quarters. If he recovers, he might be a threat in the early rounds.

But also keep an eye on Filip Krajinovic, who was supposed to be Nole's doubles partner last week. But he did pretty well on the singles side of things, too, trouncing Dominic Thiem in the second round and taking the first set off Milos Raonic in the quarters. He might just be able to set up a showdown with his compatriot for that spot in the semis. 

But in this one, you've got to go with the odds...

My Semifinalist Pick:Novak Djokovic
Confidence Meter:If not for the neck issues, I'd give him the full six... 

Second Quarter

This section of the draw is headlined by one of the most active players on tour during the quarantine -- Dominic Thiem, who came OHSOCLOSE to winning the Australian Open this year, picked up a couple exhibition events, including one on the ill-fated Adria Tour before the plug was pulled. But then in his first legit tournament since the shutdown he was utterly dominated by Filip Krajinovic in his opener. That's not to say he won't rebound here -- he certainly can't do any worse than his first round exit from 2019 -- and he's got a couple rounds before he faces his first test.

Then there's Andy Murray, who won his first Major in New York a full eight years ago. Two hip surgeries later he's now ranked all the way down at #134, but this past week, in his second round win over Alexander Zverev, we saw glimpses of the top talent he once was. A wildcard this year, he could meet young talent Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round and, followed by countryman Daniel Evans and potentially Thiem. Whether he's in shape to survive multiple best-of-five matches remains a question, but I'm surprised to say I'm excited to see him try.

There could be some fireworks elsewhere in this section too -- Roberto Bautista Agut, who nearly took out Novak Djokovic at the Western & Southern, opens his campaign against the aptly named Tennys Sandgren, who made a Cinderella run in Melbourne this year, beating Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini and pushing Roger Federer to the very edge in the quarters. Post lockdown, he made the third round this week in Cincy and could give us a great first round against the eighth seed.

And of course, Milos Raonic certainly reasserted himself at the Western & Southern -- "reasserted" for those who forgot he made the quarters in Melbourne this year too -- getting the unlikeliest of leads on Novak Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He's never had the best luck in New York, but maybe he can change things now. 

My Semifinalist Pick:Whoever wins between RBA and Sandgren
Confidence Meter:Is that cheating, a little?

Third Quarter

I might be most excited to see how things play out in this part of the men's draw. Last year's runner-up Daniil Medvedev will look to go one better than his banner run from 2019 and might just be in a good position to do it. While he hasn't been as strong as he was last year -- can you really compare the two seasons, though? -- he had a decent run to the fourth round in Melbourne and didn't get too tripped up in his attempt to defend his Cincy title -- a loss to Roberto Bautista Agut is nothing to be ashamed of. And his first few rounds should be similarly easy to handle.

But there are plenty of hopefuls who will try to make him a flash in the pan. Especially someone like Matteo Berrettini, who shocked the world -- okay, shocked me -- when he made the semis here last year. He had some solid wins in 2019 -- a 3-0 record against Karen Khachanov, a couple wins over Dominic Thiem -- but he's frankly still a vulnerable seed. A third round meeting with an emergent Casper Ruud could prove to be a real test of his mettle.

A couple others in the mix could really upset the balance though. Andrey Rublev got off to a pretty nice start to the year with two titles before the Australian Open and a fourth round showing in Melbourne. He's at a career high ranking going into the Open, and though he's lost his last two matches -- both to Daniel Evans -- he'll be eager to get back on track now. He's got a first round against veteran Jeremy Chardy and was slated to face his first seeded opponent Benoit Paire in the third round, but the Frenchman on Sunday became the first player to test positive for the coronavirus in New York and was forced to withdraw. That could prove to Rublev's advantage

And then there's a dangerously unseeded John Millman, who might have the upper hand in his opener against Nikoloz Balisashvili and is in the same immediate section as Grigor Dimitrov, the player we keep waiting to see take the reins in this sport. Millman stunned Roger Federer here in 2018, while Dimitrov did the same last season. The Bulgarian starts his campaign against the same man who knocked him out of the Australian Open, first round Tommy Paul, but if he's sufficiently recovered from his own calamitous bout with COVID we could get a nice clash between him and the Australian a few matches later. 

My Semifinalist Pick:John Millman
Confidence Meter:He's a strong player and really doesn't get enough credit

Fourth Quarter

The last section of the draw is led by two of the guys that hope to take over the crown from the current Big Three -- Alexandrer Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. The former surprised me with a run to the semis Down Under, but has been quiet since, dropping his first match since quarantine (and that ill-planned "gathering") to Andy Murray last week. He opens against 2017 runner-up Kevin Anderson, who's is still recovering from knee surgery. Still he's a big server and might be able to present a threat early. 

Meanwhile, after an earlier exit than anticipated in Melbourne, Tsitsipas did manage a title in Marseille and a final in Dubai. He made the semis in Cincy, but fell there to a resurgent Milos Raonic. He seems to have a less threatening early road in New York, but there are nevertheless some threats out there.

Chief among them is the feisty Diego Schwartzman, slated to meet Zverev for a spot in the quarters and who far outplays his 5'7" frame. He beat the German here last year and put up a fight against Rafael Nadal in the semis, and though he's been a little more quiet this year, he somehow seems to bring his best when you don't expect it.

I've also got my eye on teenage American wildcard Brandon Nakashima, playing in his very first Major. He captured an ITF title in Santa Fe, reached the quarters at Delray Beach and the semis at the Indian Wells Challengers event in February. Over the summer he became a standout in World Team Tennis, getting wins over Steve Johnson Tennys Sandgren, Jack Sock, and Tommy Paul. He'd face Zverev or Anderson in the second round -- if he can get by veteran Paolo Lorenzi -- and it will be great to see exactly what he's made of.

My Semifinalist Pick:Stefanos Tsitsipas
Confidence Meter:It seems like his time to show us what he's got

Well there you go, my full analysis of the 2020 U.S. Open draws. It sure feels weird to go through that with barely a mention of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal -- though, I suppose, we should start getting used to that some day soon.

I can't say things will feel the same without so many of the sports top stars, to say nothing of how strange it will be with all the other measures being implemented. Though I'm encouraged by how much great tennis we've still seen in spite of all that the last few weeks, and there's no reason we shouldn't expect more.

There's been a lot of speculation about whether whoever wins the titles here will have an asterisk by their names in the record books -- does a record count, will a trophy be as meaningful, if you didn't face a full field to get there? But plenty of titles have been won with the champion never beating someone ranked higher -- Ash Barty won the French Open last year facing just one player in the top twenty, no one in the top ten. And there will still be so much talent on the courts in New York, it's going to be hard to take away from any accomplishments.

So as we get ready for the first balls to be hit, let's just hope we're in for two weeks of solid ball, only the good kind of drama, and a safe tournament for everyone involved.

* By my count: Sofia Kenin, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters. (Active Slam winners not in draw: Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu, Jelena Ostapenko, Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova.)

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